Tonight’s topic: Penny Arcade. Extra bonus pointals for including a drunk bicyclist. We’ve got this.
Dalina twirled in front of the mirror. Her coal-black hair shone with igneous fire in the gaslight. She tied the colorful gypsy bandana around her head and put on the gold earrings, the ones with tiny, jingling coins that looked so heavy but felt lighter than air. Her full skirts accentuated curvy hips and a trim waistline; a loosely tied peasant blouse did the same for her ample breasts. Dalina smiled slyly at her reflection. She imagined herself caressing Aidan’s palm. Let me tell you about the future…
Dalina’s father watched from the doorway of their wagon. He was a fifth generation performer, and took his part in the family fortune-telling business seriously. It pained and disappointed him to watch his daughter drifting further and further away from their traditions, to see her gradually letting go of their way of life. He knew no other. Georg was not ready for this clash of cultures, this jarring change from his own daydreams of what life would be like for him in his old age. Dalina’s mother had run off when she was just a babe, but Georg had stopped her from taking his only daughter into the city. He would keep a closer watch on the girl. He would see to it that she did not follow in her mother’s wicked footsteps.
Aidan, meanwhile, told his parents that he was going to Matt’s house to study. They didn’t trust the motley band of circus gypsies camped on the edge of town. Though they had entertained the townfolk each year, each year they edged closer to that awkward and uncomfortable point where Aidan’s father, Sheriff Knowles, had to consider whether it was time to suggest they move along.
Aidan had decided he wanted them to stay. The beautiful young fortune-teller had captured his heart. He planned to win hers, tonight. He would go to the gypsies’ penny arcade, win a brass ring, and ask her to run away with him. It sounded quite sensible in his head.
Aidan arrived at the gypsies camp around eight. The circus performance was already in full swing, but most of the townsfolk had already seen the act and tired of it. They had also tired of losing money to the carnies; they strongly suspected their luck could not possibly be that bad. The games, of course, were rigged. But now and then, a comely young woman or an amorous young man would win a prize. The smooth operators would simply shrug, say something about young love being blessed, and cry out, “Maybe your luck will change next time!” They knew that it would not. Their sneers, should any of the dejected losers turn to look, said as much.
Aidan went straight to the arcade. He knew the game, and he had learned how to play it as well as any carny. In short, he had learned to cheat. He reached into his pocket and found liquid courage in a hip flask. He unscrewed the cap, tilted his head back, and swallowed the warm Scotch he’d pilfered from his father’s liquor cabinet. He wheeled his bike to the edge of the arcade and tied it to a tree. He went inside to win a brass ring for Dalina.
He took three bean bags and hefted each, weighing it carefully in his hands. He did not aim for the easy targets – he knew those were rigged with optical illusions and impossible alignments. Instead, he aimed for the ones that looked the hardest. The ones most of the marks dismissed as “impossible.” He tried not to make it look too easy, but he was a young man in love, and there was a prize to be won. The look of surprise on the carny’s face was priceless. Aidan collected his brass ring and went off in search of Dalina’s little tent.
At the far end of the arcade, a new machine caught his eye. It was one of those automated fortune telling gizmos – the coin operated kind that had a wax mannequin that nodded, waved its hands over a board covered in laminated Tarot cards, and spit out a printed fortune that was as cheesy as it was vague. What the heck, thought Aidan, pulling out a penny. He would get his machine-printed fortune and share it with Dalina; they’d both get a good laugh over it. He dropped his penny into the slot.
The mannequin’s lace-shrouded head drooped dejectedly over the Tarot cards. Its hands didn’t move – they simply lay there, pale and limp. Aidan kicked at the box. What the heck? The mannequin’s head lolled to one side and the mechanism inside began to move. The head began to lift. Pale skin was framed by dark, disheveled curls. The eyes were dark and sightless, but they knew the future. Aidan realized, with a sudden shock of recognition and horror, just how well they knew the future. He fought to breathe as the machine spat a piece of paper at him. He hoped it was just the alcohol hitting his brain – surely, if he blinked – everything would go back to normal. He opened the little piece of paper and stared into the lifeless eyes of his love, Dalina.
His final fortune, her gift to him, was the single word: RUN.
Aidan bolted for the opposite end of the arcade and grabbed his bike. He rode crazily across the open field and made it to the road before he had to stop to retch. As he let out a scream full of pent up terror and disgust, two bright, blinding lights came at him in the darkness… bright as Dalina’s eyes were dark. Georg stubbed out his cigarette and walked wearily back to the little wagon. The circus would leave town tonight. They had overstayed their welcome.